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Democracy and the Two Major Parties

As the major political parties strive to stifle competition, some voters place limits on themselves.

During the signature collection phase of a successful attempt to get on the ballot for Congress as an independent, a voter declined to sign my petition because, "You're either a Democrat or a Republican – there's nothing else." As she walked off, it made me sad to think that this voter limits herself to only two choices.  Perhaps others do, too.

Part of the two-party mindset comes from the parties themselves as they try to limit competition and avoid waging campaigns against multiple opponents. That effort reveals itself in three areas: gerrymandering, ballot restrictions, and legislative caucuses.

The gerrymandering that arose from the 2010 Census gave the major political parties in Virginia the freedom to trade voting precincts like Halloween candy, each claiming the precincts that they could win with little disruption to the status quo. As a result, here in the 11th Congressional District there are areas where the district is one precinct wide and where neighbors in Centreville, Fairfax, Falls Church, Herndon Lorton, Oakton, or Springfield have different Congressmen. One extreme district – Virginia's 5th – stretches more than 200 miles from Danville on the North Carolina border to Marshall, just west of Centreville.

Ballot restrictions are a legislative play to bolster the strength of parties and incumbents. In order to get on the ballot, I was required to collect 1,000 signatures from qualified voters within the district. Difficult yet achievable. But once on the ballot, the parties play their games. In Virginia, a "recognized political party" must have a "state central committee composed of registered voters residing in each congressional district" and must have "received at least 10 percent of the total vote cast" in the two preceding elections. Why is this important? Because only candidates from these parties get listed at the top of the ballot, drawing voter attention and relegating other candidates to the second division. Instead of placing candidates alphabetically or randomizing ballot placement, the recognized political parties have legislated themselves as top dogs.

A Congressional caucus is a group of Representatives that meets to advance common political causes; not surprisingly, the largest caucuses are those of the two major parties. Caucuses further dilute the power of voters by bringing together like-minded, monotone legislators to advance their narrow agenda and stifle the progress of competing agendas. Someone once asked me – if elected – which caucus I would join. My standard response remains, "Whichever party is in the majority because it is the duty of independents to moderate the excesses of the majority."

Trust me – I'm not bellyaching about this election or my situation as a first-time or independent candidate; I knew the game before I started. Rather, I'm concerned that the electorate has withdrawn to a two-tone or even monochromatic way of thinking about politics, policies, and government services.  It's a chicken-and-egg situation: did we as voters want to limit our choices and solutions or were we dealt this construct where two parties control the political discourse?

I'm not trying to convince you to vote for me because I'm the alternative to a two-party electoral system propagated and codified by the parties themselves. I just want you to weigh all candidates and all issues on their relative merits to make your own decision. That is the essence of democracy: all voters with one vote each, making a personal decision on our future.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Moira July 03, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Mark, you have some good ideas (don't we all?) but the reality in the 11th district is that running as an independent is effectively a move to keep the incumbent in office.
Mark Gibson July 03, 2012 at 08:56 PM
Thanks Moira. Call it idealist, but change cannot come from the parties as they present themselves now. The status quo by its nature -- whether incumbent or major party challenger -- doesn't want change and doesn't work for me anymore. I recently saw this quote from John Stuart Mill: "In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service." Maybe a little dated, but I like it. Mark
Arthur Christopher Schaper September 20, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Mr. Gibson: Virginia might benefit from two key reforms which California voters had implemented in: 1. Enact an Open Primary System, in which only the top two vote getters move on from the primary to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. 2. Establish a Citizens' Redistricting Commission. By taking away state and congressional redistricting from the legislature and the politicians and giving the power to a balanced team of Republican, Democrat, and Independent citizens, the districts will respect geographical, cultural, and economic contiguities instead of political interests, thus creating more districts in which incumbents will have to compete for their seats. The reforms have pushed incumbents out of politics or into very competitive races in California, while allowing Independent candidates such as yourself to compete and have a chance to win. Please visit "Waxman Watch" -- waxmanwatch.blogspot.com -- for more information about the CA-33rd Congressional race pitting Independent and "No Labels" co-founder Bill Bloomfield against founded and foundering incumbent Henry Waxman.
Mark Gibson September 20, 2012 at 12:52 AM
Thanks Mike: it's just me with nobody whispering in my ear. Mark
Mark Gibson September 20, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Mr. Schaper: Thanks for the post. The key is nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan -- California is going in the right direction. In the Commonwealth, bipartisanship has given us "recognized political parties" -- see http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+24.2-613 -- and too-cozy relationships amongst the NoVA Congressional delegation. This past weekend at an event in Woodbridge, the chairman of the Prince William County Electoral Board said that incumbents "get to pick their voters." Even our nonpartisan officials recognize the problem and danger to democracy. Mark

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